Widely known for the pendant egg detail, Piero della Francesca’s Brera Altarpiece should be explained for what it represents: a hanging spawn.
Piero della Francesca is the most architectonic among Italian renaissance painters. Nevertheless, his cold-hearted rigorous attitude suddenly donates a powerfully unique symbolism in the panorama. Traditionally, this strange suspended egg has always been interpreted as a unicum with a shell. But in more modern times, this intuition quickly ran out, and they grabbed at straws to think of a symbolic reason for two separate hieroglyphs.
The oil on the table we are examining is known as the “Brera Altarpiece” because it is now in Pinacoteca of Brera in Milano. But in the registers of “Convento di San Bernardino”, the first housing for the painting, the work was recorded as ” Sacred Conversation with Madonna and child, six saints, four angels, and the donor Federico da Montefeltro”. In the same register, the work is even attributed to an author other than Piero della Francesca, that’s to say, a not widely-known Fra Carnevale. Little is known about the agreements between Federico da Montefeltro, the client, and Piero della Francesca. According to some art historians, the altarpiece was intended to take an essential role in funeral affairs to honor the young wife of Federico da Montefeltro, Battista Sforza, who died in childbirth and was portrayed by Piero della Francesca in the face of the Madonna.
Neither we know the exact date on which the work was painted, presumably before 1474, though the above mention register was recorded in the year 1472. A masterpiece for which no one wanted to take responsibility for having done and hosted. Among the other mysteries of the table, nobody knows why Federico da Montefeltro’s hands were repainted some years after ( probably by Pedro Berruguete, the painter of Urbino Court). Maybe some rings must disappear. On a duke Federico’s order, of course. Concerning the duke’s hands, it is interesting to note the presence of his unwieldy iron gloves on the ground, as though there has been an intention to increase the pointing at these hands. They seem to play a not negligible role in the painting.
Some art historians have stated that Piero della Francesca painted an egg as a symbolic target, for the simple reason an egg represents a very effective three-dimensional architectural element. They treat Piero della Francesca as a modern artist who used to paint just mere perspective decorations for interior design reasons.
He certainly did not paint an egg for a mere architectural purpose, even if the case could be plausible, given that Piero della Francesca was, in a certain sense, the greatest example of the use of perspective in Italian Renaissance painting. So, that monumental perspective could really be a distinctive Piero della Francesca’s feature, and even his focus on the egg might be seen as a search for an architectural effect. But, as mentioned above, a Renaissance painter always attempted to paint highly symbolic scenes.
Supposing della Francesca just wanted to focus on the egg or provide it with an appropriate set, it is good to know that the Alchemy perspective provides highly symbolic value: it signifies the affirmation of the ancient stellar calendar instead of the modern solar one. This concept could have huge consequences for the egg, as we’ll see later.
The altarpiece is universally known for its pendant egg detail. Not for the shell in the canopy of the half dome. In fact, this marine iconographic theme is not unusual in the fifteenth-century Italian painting panorama, especially the Florentine and Venetian ones. Many Italian Madonnas have been portrayed under a giant marine shell. Still, the shell-egg association is certainly unique in the pictorial panorama of the Renaissance. So clear in its rendering to cause a state of perplexity among art critics, who have defined it “ostrich egg”—perhaps intending to underline the singularity.
There is a current tradition to neglect the whole symbolic environment and untie every single piece of symbolism as owning to a symbolic environment per sé. So, concerning the shell, the symbol of “New Venus” has been put forward. And the seed of life is banally hanging down from a huge new Venus. But is it not blasphemous for a catholic to compare Mary, the mother of Christ, to Venus, the voluptuous goddess? Wouldn’t we be faced with an out-of-place huge fertility celebration?
The thesis is contradicted by other critics who, instead, have proposed the egg as a symbol of Mary’s virginity. They alone may know in what possible way ( I can guess because the egg is sealed closed ). By the way, what about the presence of countless rose flowers to beautify the coffered vault? They say we are before a tribute to Mary’s beauty as a new modest Venus. Apart from the apparent historical absurdity – Catholics have always been renowned for their fantasy not always sustained by sound rationality – this tribute to the Madonna as the new Venus is instead a theory which, from a mythological point of view, is by no means absurd. As we have already seen in an article on Botticelli’s Birth of Venus the shell was an attribute of the mythological Venus. Since Venus, or rather the greek Aphrodite, is a shell; a little boat floating on Poseidon’s waves to carry souls to safety (1).
To an alchemist, the shell in the table is unequivocally a symbol of our Mercurial Sea becoming earth as it was in many alchemical drawings of the time, which is not less poetic than the universe itself since we alchemists do believe that our Mercurius/Secret Fire is the Spirit of Life bringing Life to everything and everywhere. The Madonna is also a mercurial symbol of a different stage than one of the mothers of Sulfur-little Child (2). A sulfurous child who can be defined Egg without fear of appearing blasphemous. In the end, the rose flowers beautifying the coffered vault are the alchemical sulfurous blossoms per antonomasia. Don’t take for granted they must be red: the child wears two little coral trees (3) around his neck. It was a symbol to grant good fortune to the new baby, but also a symbol of alchemical Sulphur. One is red, but the other is white, just like our two Sulphuri.
Some modern historians have given the egg the meaning of caducity of life, suspended by the imminent thin thread of destiny ( drawing on the young duchess’s sudden death). But what about the upper shell?
All these moderns fail to understand that even a mere decoration, if so, was highly tied to symbolism at the end of the fifteenth century. And in this case, they accept that they fail to accept the culture of the renaissance time. Good hermetic and alchemical knowledge was ubiquitous among the artists of the time and their patrons (Federico da Montefeltro, as a young boy, was a student of the humanist Vittorino da Feltre). Little pieces of hermeticism were quite ubiquitously scattered in renaissance art. And here lies another problem: what kind of hermeticism are our modern historians willing to accept? In my opinion, a hermeticism so domesticated, and consequently so far from the real renaissance erudition, that they hardly go above and beyond pure triteness, so no wonder they have a real hard time explaining a symbolism they have missed the bunch of keys to decrypt. I will try two types of explanation, one philosophical and the other of laboratory alchemy.
The Neoplatonist Damascius, the last scholarch of the school of Athens, dedicates the end of the third book of his Difficulties and Solutions of First Principles to the Orphic rhapsodies and names the egg as a symbol of unification of principles and a means for unification. Chronos-time-before-time is the first principle; Ether and Chaos instead of the two principles; and the Egg instead of the pure Being. The White Tunic and the Cloud are synonyms for Egg (4). The terms “Cosmic” and “Cosmizing”, which can be attributed to the Egg, have a meaning of returning to its origins: here, we are facing the myth of the Archetype and the return to the Archetype.
Orphic fragment n. 70: “Then the great Chronos made through the divine Ether the Egg bursting with whiteness.” The Egg could therefore become, in a no less plausible way, the first mixed or the first being, which contains all that will develop at lower levels. Ether, Chaos, Egg, such is the triad analogous to the first intelligible triad. But, from here, only Phanes remains the last and, therefore, the most apparent revelation of the intelligible.
Orphic fragment n. 66: “The Time which does not include age and whose wisdom is imperishable, has engendered Ether and the great gaping chasm, whose immensity extends in all directions.” The Time once accepted as a symbol of the very first principle (the ineffable One), we should try to understand what lies beneath the symbol of the Ether, the so-called Heaven. These Orphic verses have attracted the attention of Syrianus, Proclus, and Damascius. We must imagine that the Tetraktys, the reunification of the original archetype, represent these concepts. So we are talking about the repetition of an Archetype. In this sense, the Egg of the Brera Altarpiece is a cosmic egg or seed of life.
Anyway, one can’t help to ask oneself why Piero della Francesca’s egg is prevented from falling by a thread. So why this fear of falling if everything around the universe must necessarily be the universe again?
Was the presence of the thread intended to suggest the symbolic suspension of the egg above the Madonna below? Was it supposed to give the impression of a floating egg? A symbolic Egg, in the renaissance, couldn’t in any way be suspended for mere architectonic reasons. It should have hung for objective reasons.
The reasons for the symbolic existence of the thread can be two, one concerns physics, and the other the alchemical laboratory mechanics. Let’s start with the first meaning: in Francesco Zorzi’s Harmonia Mundi we read the thread is synonymous with “chant”, with the sound union between the microcosm and the macrocosm. And all this because only a wire would be able to pass through the “small hole” of communication between heaven and earth.
The second explanation leads us directly to the philosophical egg or last alchemical cooking.
The philosophical Egg
And here come in duke Federico’s hands. Because the philosophical egg must be handcrafted. As said above, the ancients saw the shells as the unique animal to transform water in the earth (our element Water to element Earth). So the cosmic seed is not only being born by the universe but also by the element Water turned into Earth. The Egg is a vitrification of our Prima Materia in the third work or last cooking.
The “Vase-Vessel-Egg” is the final, allowed, known step of the Sacred Art. Or, better, the first of the blurring steps even above and beyond the operations of the Opus Magnum within the reach of ordinary alchemists (5).
The iatrochemists of the Baroque age designed and had amazing tools built to perform their complex operations. For example, Nicaise le Febvre conceived a vase with a vase suspended inside and calls it “egg”. In fact, the “egg” was universally known as a “vessel” (6)
The alchemical egg vessel had many additional complexities to the simple vase of Nicaise le Febvre.
From Hieroglyphical Figures, traditionally attributed to Nicolas Flamel: “ This vessel of earth, in this form, is called by the philosophers, their triple vessel, for within it, there is in the middle a stage or a floor, and upon that a disk or a platter full of lukewarm ashes, within the which is the Philosophical Egg, that is a phial of glass full of confections of art…”.
The vessel must be rigorously handcrafted, and the hand should represent this detail. The miniaturized palace may render the enormous power that comes from the operation: in ancient times, it was said the palace made the king.
Canseliet provides a description, if not of the entire apparatus he built for the final cooking of the egg, at least of the problems and perplexities encountered (7). But it also describes the wonders of egg “outputs” with weight gains (8).
When Hieronymus Bosch painted a philosophical egg, his rendering was directly musical: the painting was called “concert in an egg” (9).
However, there may also be another interpretation of the scene: the suspension-hanging metaphor was directly linked to the idea of air movement. In ancient Greece, suspension rituals from tree branches were prescribed to attract the atonement of sins. But no one took the idea of swinging literally. It was just a metaphor. To clarify the mystery, it will be helpful to know that wind and sound had a similar origin to the ancients (9).
- See also Botticelli, Venus Birth & Primaterialistic Subject on a Shell;
- See also Giorgione, Tempest & Aqua Pontica ;
- See also Atalanta Fugiens and Coral from Waters ;
- Damascius, Traité des Premiers Principes. De la Procession de L’Unifié, Les Belles Lettres, Paris 2002, page 159.
- Archarion Opus Magnum scheme ;
- Nicaise le Febvre and the Egg inside the Egg;
- Canseliet & the Details of the Last Cooking;
- Canseliet and the Art of Music and Weight; Atorène: Fire and Weights in Canseliet’s Last Cooking;
- Hieronymus Bosch and the Concert in the Egg ;
- Pompeii Mysteries Villa: a Gentle Flowing with Mystica Vannus.